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Canada's Alex Bruce and Michelle Li to play for Olympic badminton bronze

08/02/2012 03:40 EDT | Updated 10/02/2012 05:12 EDT
LONDON - Two days ago, Alex Bruce and Michelle Li were tourists in London, believing they were out of the Olympics.

Now, the two young badminton players are making history, jettisoned into the spotlight as one of Canada's feel-good stories of the Games.

And like any celebrity supercouple, they've been tagged with their own nickname — "Bruce Li."

The Toronto twosome will play for a bronze medal, thanks to a shuttlecock scandal that has rocked the sport at the London Olympics. Bruce and Li were beaten by No. 4 seeds Mizuki Fujii and Reika Kakiwa 21-12, 19-21, 21-13 in the doubles semifinals Thursday.

But no Canadian has ever won an Olympic badminton medal or even made the semifinals.

"It's been a bit of a roller-coaster emotionally, with our nerves and the news that has been going around . . . we just tried to stay calm and focus on the match," Bruce said.

"I'm pretty sure everybody who never watches badminton has started to see the badminton on TV and that makes me feel really happy, because we're making history and I'm really proud that we can get this far, and we're playing so well," Li added.

They'll play Russians Valeria Sorokina and Nina Vislova for third-place Saturday at Wembley Arena in an unlikely Olympic storyline neither Canadian could have envisioned.

The 22-year-old Bruce and 20-year-old Li thought their Games were over Tuesday morning after they went 0-3 to finish last in their pool by a combined score of 126-52.

"We finished our pool play in the morning. . . so all during the day I was out with family and friends, hanging around London, we were at Canada Olympic House," Bruce said. "I actually came back for the evening session, had dinner, went to bed, slept in."

The next day the 27th-ranked Canadians found themselves in the semifinals after eight players were expelled from the competition for losing on purpose, accused of throwing their matches to set up a more advantageous path through the medal round.

The Canadians, gold medallists at the Pan American Games last fall in Mexico, were reinstated and just hours later went on to defeat Australia's Leanne Choo and Renuga Veeran in the quarter-finals.

"It's such a roller-coaster, we're in, we're out, we're back in, and not only are we back in but we're in the medal round," said coach Ram Nayyar. "The Olympic experience is hard enough to manage and then on top of that you layer the roller-coaster. . ."

Sorokina and Vislova, who were also reinstated after originally being eliminated, lost 21-19, 21-6 to China's Tian Qing and Zhao Yunlei in Thursday's other semifinal.

The Canadians didn't go down easy, trailing just 16-13 in the third set.

"I can't begin to guess what they might be feeling right now, literally from everything I've got from their Facebooks or their Twitters, it must have been the weight of Canada on their shoulders," Nayyar said. "I think they did us proud. Tremendous, tremendous effort."

The Canadians were feeling the love from the virtual world Thursday.

"I read some (posts) last night, I never had so many notifications," Bruce said with a laugh. "So it was really fun. It's so nice to have all the support, we can feel it from across the ocean here, and it's given us so much belief in ourselves and I think they now have belief in all Canadians playing badminton which is so important."

The crowd of about 4,500 was boisterously behind the Canadians on Thursday night, one side of Wembley Arena chanting "Bruce!" the other yelling "Li!"

Two nights earlier, fans jeered the players purposely blowing their matches.

"I saw both matches that night and for me, it was an eyeopener, I never would have thought anybody could serve so many in the net and purposely lose like that," Li said. "Seeing the audience boo them, it was really unfortunate and wasn't good for the sport and it's definitely not the way we want to put badminton on the map in Canada, so it was kind of unfortunate.

"But because of this we got a second chance and we're really taking advantage of it."

Eight players from China, South Korea and Indonesia were expelled, including world champions Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang, in what's become one of the biggest stories of these Games.

That opened the door for the Canadians, whose confidence has soared since they returned to the court to write the second chapter of their London experience.

"When we heard we got a second chance, we really put everything out there and I think that really made us grow as a pair," Li said. "Mentally, physically, tactically, our team has gotten stronger, our communication on court has gotten stronger and I feel that we will give them a better game this time and we are really fighting for the bronze medal."

It would be a storybook ending for two players who once battled each other in university badminton — Li for the University of Toronto Varsity of Blues, Bruce for the Western Mustangs.

Nayyar told the two before they began play in London to approach their matches as if anything could happen.

"These are the Olympic Games, this is where anything does happen," the coach said.

Danes Kamilla Rytter Juhl and Danish partner Christinna Pedersen were the spark to scandal, upsetting second-seeded Chinese pair Tian Qing and Zhao Yunlei to upend the expected quarter-final matchups.

Juhl argued the quarter-finals should have been redrawn because the winners ended up playing each other, and the four group losers faced off.

Juhl suggested the Canadians and Russians thank them for their spots in the semifinals.

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